The Corner

Reagan’s Error

In making his case for tax increases last night, President Obama described past deals in which Democrats promised spending cuts in return for tax increases, and said:

The first time a deal passed, a predecessor of mine made the case for a balanced approach by saying this: “Would you rather reduce deficits and interest rates by raising revenue from those who are not now paying their fair share, or would you rather accept larger budget deficits, higher interest rates, and higher unemployment? And I think I know your answer.” Those words were spoken by Ronald Reagan. But today, many Republicans in the House refuse to consider this kind of balanced approach.

Well, yes, those words were spoken by Ronald Reagan (in August of 1982) in reference to TEFRA—the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act—which congressional Democrats promised would involve a ratio of $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases (which they said would consist only of closing loopholes). TEFRA passed later that year, and the tax increases certainly happened but, as Reagan later put it in his autobiography, “the Democrats reneged on their pledge and we never got those cuts.”

 

TEFRA was one of Reagan’s great regrets about his time in the White House, and should serve as a warning to Republicans contemplating similar grand bargains. Obama’s reference to it only highlights the fact that he tried to pull off something much like TEFRA. Luckily, he appears to have failed.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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